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On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction


#1

You could be forgiven for thinking that everything useful (and a whole lot that’s useless) has already been said about the ills of digital distraction. But in his new book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew B. Crawford offers a fresh take on this well-worn subject by positioning it within the centuries-old philosophical discussion on attention. Invoking Socrates and Kant in particular, Crawford treats the problem of distraction as an obstacle to an attentive engagement with the world. His book is given a thorough and thoughtful review by Charles Clavey at the LA Review of Books. Here’s a snippet:

Cast as a work of “political philosophy,” The World Beyond Your Head aims at nothing less than reopening the philosophical treatment of distraction and reevaluating the prevailing understanding of the human condition. No simple problem restricted to the contemporary mindset or modern technology, distraction signals a deeper crisis of attentional ethics: we’re so distracted, Crawford argues, because we have no ability to discriminate between things worthy and unworthy of attention; we have no ability to discriminate, in turn, because we have a misunderstanding of human action in and interaction with the world. On a somewhat more restrained view, the book is less magnum opus than philosophical provocation. Crawford’s greatest service is to spur our thought, to enjoin his readers to pay attention to the struggle of paying attention.

When we undertake activities that pull us beyond our heads, when we cultivate attention’s erotic pull, we begin the process of becoming authentic individuals. These activities have internal standards of excellence that demand confrontation and struggle with the world around us; they undo the Enlightenment’s pernicious illusion of an autonomous individual free from external constraint and replace it with a more correct understanding of the subject as embedded in society and history and constrained by culture and nature. These activities are also always-already social. At a bare minimum, every musician requires a maestro, every cook learns from a chef. Becoming an excellent cook requires external approbation; it requires that one cook recognize another as excellent. This, for Crawford, is the source of authentic individuality: the recognition by another that I am outside my head, that I am engaged in the world…

There are intimations of a potentially rich social theory here — one stretching backward to the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and forward to thinkers like Robert Pippin, Nancy Fraser, and Axel Honneth. Crawford imagines a world structured by these sorts of practices — in essence, craftwork and tradecraft — in which we throw off the mantle of false individualism and others escape the shadow of anonymity. Together we would become individuals by working towards excellence and recognizing each other when we do so. Guided by traditions, shaped by material constraints, we’d embrace the challenges of confronting the world and rediscover the joys of innovation, modification, and success.

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#2

To me the problem of digital distraction always leads back to the physical, i.e. means our bodies.

“When we undertake activities that pull us beyond our heads, when we cultivate attention’s erotic pull, we begin the process of becoming authentic individuals. These activities have internal standards of excellence that demand confrontation and struggle with the world around us; […]”

“Pulling us beyond our heads” and also “struggling with the world”, for me, both means to engage in Besinnung, which is a german word that you may losely translate or read as to come to senses or to re-sensualize. Being engaged in digital media and contemporary visual culture (screens, programs, communication etc.) is something that adds up to an already heavy-headed bias in everyday life. Whereas our corporality is our actual connection to the outide. While this sounds painfully esoteric as well as self-evident, it’s something that is regressing in our society.

The meaning of the word attention also seems to revolve around orienting towards the outside. I’m not an etymologist, so it might be wrong, but for me it rather refers to the physical as described above, as compared to us being embeded in society and history.